The UK tech industry is booming, with record levels of investment helping to create 76 new startups every hour and thousands of jobs. However, an acute shortage of potential employees with sufficient digital skills may jeopardise this momentum.
A shift towards more digital-first operations and practices initiated by the pandemic, such as remote working, has accentuated a pre-existing gap in digital skills. Research from Salesforce’s Global Digital Skills Index revealed that 80% of UK workers do not feel ready to operate in a digital-first world, with 43% stating they feel ‘overwhelmed’ by the rate of technological change.
A short supply of coders, despite coding being a highly sought skill for several organisations, is one example of this struggle for tech talent. At the same time, the cost-of-living crisis and refugee crises from places like Ukraine mean there are many disadvantaged communities who, for one reason or another, would consider a career in coding out of reach.
Certainly, bridging the skills gap will require a societal shift that makes coding training accessible to all. This would deepen the talent pool for employers, and create new opportunities for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
What are the barriers?
A lack of digital skills is clearly a problem across the board. But for would-be coders from lower socio-economic communities and disadvantaged groups, the barriers are more stark.
Access to up-to-date tech is a significant advantage for anyone wanting to acquire and hone new digital skills. Of course, this is not a privilege afforded to all – in lower income groups, one in five (21%) of households with children have no access to an appropriate device, according to Catch 22. Without a suitable laptop or computer, learning to code becomes a difficult task – especially when many coding courses are now fully remote or include coursework.
Connectivity is similar in this regard. The ONS found that only 51% of households earning between £6,000-10,000 had home internet access, compared with 99% of households with an income of over £40,000. Another study found that almost half of young people (48%) are primarily teaching themselves digital skills; young people without connectivity often find themselves lagging behind their peers.
Equally detrimental to a career in coding is the expensive education required to acquire certifications. Many specialist coding courses are fee-paying, charging rates that are out of reach for those who might otherwise be interested. Further, courses, especially higher education qualifications, are time-consuming and may not be viable when individuals are working a full-time job or caring for loved ones.
Meanwhile, there is often a disconnect between these communities and the potential career options available to them.
Direct engagement needed
There is a potential to balance inequality through digital careers. People have a real possibility to succeed in digital careers such as coding, and there are more and more professions outside of tech businesses that require digital skills.
As such, employers, local councils, and skills providers must work to increase direct engagement in these communities to highlight paths into tech that are affordable. They should encourage more people to enrol in coding classes through effective advertising, and communication from local support groups and local authorities highlighting the benefits of courses such as digital bootcamps.
These courses must, of course, be made accessible both from a practical and financial standpoint. Crucially, employers and job-seeking services should assist people seeking new coding skills by helping them find relevant courses and assisting with the enrolment process – particularly beneficial for those who do not use English as a first language.
Coding training is key
CodeYourFuture, working with West Midlands Combined Authority, is running free coding bootcamps targeted at those from disadvantaged and marginalised communities. But providing coding training is just the first step – employer engagement is crucial.
Whether upskilling existing staff or creating career pathways by offering job interviews, apprenticeships or guidance to those who graduate from skills bootcamps (and other courses), is essential in bridging the skills gaps.
This will lead to greater economic inclusion, social mobility, and equality can all be greatly enhanced by jobs in digital fields. Indeed, digitally-oriented jobs frequently include higher salaries and career advancement opportunities, as well as transferrable abilities that help workers at all stages of their careers.
The talent shortage in the coding sector, as with all tech industries, cannot be solved if we do not widen the talent pool. That said, better links between employers, training providers, and communities must be made to highlight the avenues open to disadvantaged groups, such as digital bootcamps.
Establishing this will open the gates for thousands of much-needed, newly qualified coders ready to enter the workforce.
Elizabeth Lawal is the director of personal development at Code Your Future, a UK-based non-profit organisation that trains people from disadvantaged backgrounds and communities to become web developers and helps them to find work in the tech industry.